On Friday evening, January 29, 2016, I gave a lecture on the topic of dreams for the C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis. Here is the text of that lecture:
AN APPROACH TO THE DREAM
Peoples throughout history have been fascinated by their dreams, have sought to understand them, and have used them for guidance. It is only we moderns who have somewhat lost touch with the dreamworld and with how to understand or work with it. The language of dreams is symbolic.
We can largely credit Sigmund Freud with giving dreams their due. Freud understood the unconscious as a sort of “trash heap” of consciousness, the repository for all things discarded by consciousness because unpleasant, not fitting with the conscious attitude, or interfering with the fulfillment of the ego desires. Dreams were a product of the trash heap; any value they might hold came only from their shaping by consciousness.
To Freud, dreams were a facade behind which the individual repressed painful memories, censored unacceptable thoughts, and hid unpleasant realities. The function of psychoanalysis was to lay bare these hidden memories, thoughts, and realities so the individual could grow up, form a superego strong enough to deal with the unconscious id desires and energies. A nifty arrangement if you were the analyst; not so great for the patient trying to make his/her psychic energies fit into a someone else’s psychological and theoretical frame.
C. G. Jung read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams shortly after its publication in 1900, and became a follower of and collaborator with Freud for about a decade. The two men kept up a voluminous correspondence, met many times, and traveled together. Jung had a father transference to Freud, who was older by 19 years. Freud insisted on the father-son dynamic, and Jung began to chafe under it. You probably know that all Jung’s major life decisions grew out of his dreams and his active imaginations. The break with Freud was presaged by dreams Jung had during a seven-week-long trip the two men took together to the United States in 1909. During the trip they were together every day and analyzed each other’s dreams.
I am going to dwell on one of Jung’s dreams during that trip because it so well illustrates his general way of working with and understanding dreams. This particular dream was one of several experiences that led Jung to develop the concept of the collective unconscious, which I’ll talk more about later on. Jung recounts this dream in his autobiographical work, Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
I was in a house I did not know, which had two stories. It was “my house.” I found myself in the upper story, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house, and thought, “Not bad” But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval; the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another, thinking, “Now I really must explore the whole house.” I came upon a heavy door, and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs, and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted, and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down into the depths. These, too, I descended, and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. [p. 158-59]When Jung recounted the dream to Freud, Freud focussed on the two skulls and urged Jung to find the wish connected with them, the death-wish having a prominent place in Freud’s theory. A man has to “kill” the father to grow up. Rather than explore the dream for what it might have to reveal, Freud insisted on taking refuge in his theory. Jung, 34 years old at the time, didn’t have sufficient foundation within himself to challenge the famous authority Dr. Freud, so kept his thoughts to himself.
His own reflections on the dream, no doubt developed over decades since he is recounting it in MDR at age 85, hold some gems of understanding for us in working with our own dreams.
THE HOUSE - An image of the psyche with hitherto unconscious additions. The house is a frequent image in dreams. People often bring dreams of new spaces, parts of their house they didn’t know existed. These are important dreams. One in particular I will relate. [And in every case, I use only client material for which I have the permission of the client to cite.] The dreamer, (I’ll call her Alice), was a young woman who had suffered a traumatic childhood. She believed her mother hated herself and hated her. Her parents’ marriage was turbulent, marked by violent fights, separations and reconciliations. At around age 12, Alice was turned over to her maternal grandmother permanently, a woman far more kind and loving. Alice’s early dreams revealed a psychic house that reflected her childhood home—chaotic, disturbing, terrifying at times. About some two years into our work together, she dreamed she was in that early home and discovered underground tunnels that connected to the houses on either side, houses in which two of her childhood friends lived. Her associations with those friends and the kinds of houses they lived in were revealing. The friends were cherished by their parents; their homes were a refuge for Alice when things grew unbearable at home. The tunnels represented for Alice the possibility of escape from a psychic space dominated by crushing parental complexes. As you can imagine, Alice’s self-identity and her world view began to change. Rather than experiencing mostly painful situations and people she saw as hostile, she began to venture out more, make friends, find supportive figures at the university she had attended sporadically before. As indicated by the dream, she made new connections to friendlier places.
In general, our parents (and other authorities) are the architects and builders of our psychological and emotional houses. When these authorities are adequate and sufficiently strong, yet flexible and adaptive to the developing individual and a changing world, all goes well. Such an individual will have in place parental imagos, i.e., unconscious parental guides, that provide guidance and wisdom for life’s journey. Institutions, like these individuals, encode and preserve collective guidance and wisdom. The problem as well as the blessing, of course, is that both a predetermined ego consciousness in the individual and in the institution is highly-resistant to change. An individual sufficiently contained in such structures is never forced to venture beyond the part of his/her “house” that exists above ground. It is from this type rigid structure that we hear arguments like “Well, we’ve always done it this way before.” As well, as, “We can’t go there, do that; there are disasters ahead, “giants loose in the land.”
Often times a dream will show figures who go ahead of the dream ego, who enter unknown places. These are the “scouts” of the psyche who help allay anxiety and fear. [And by dream ego, I simply mean the individual having the dream who plays a role in it. The dream ego is some facet or part of the entire personality.]
When the parents are not good enough, missing, abusive, alcoholic, etc., the individual can grow up ill-equipped to handle the vicissitudes of life. These people may follow the pattern their parent or parents set. They may become neurotic, even psychotic. Jung argued that these are the individuals—the misfits, the ill-adapted, the miserable, the broken—who, lacking the unconscious mechanisms that guide ego consciousness more or less successfully—who can become creative, can provide the leadership to move the culture beyond established norms. Of course, these people can also become extremely problematic and destructive, passing their own sins “down to the fourth generation.”
Jung’s “house” dream, which he noted as an extremely important one, marked the beginning of an understanding that much lay below the domain of ego consciousness. He determined to discover as much as possible about that other domain.
From earlier experiences and from this dream and its architecture, he came to see that human consciousness, civilization, and culture rests on historic layers of an ordered history that gives shape and structure. One of Jung’s Red Book paintings is of his conception of the ordering he perceived.
Another way he found to express his lifetime of understanding was in his Bollingen retreat house which he built over several decades. He wrote that Bollingen was, “a representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired and a concretization of the individuation process.”
Jung eventually postulated the existence of archetypes, patterns of human behavior that inform the personal but that lie below the surface. When individuals like Alice connect with different patterns, ones that are healthier and more life-giving, they are drawing upon archetypal dimensions of the psyche, patterns that exist at a level below (or above and around) personal consciousness. These patterns serve to broaden one’s self identity and one’s conscious awareness. An individual may express this increased sense of self and personal history as “Oh, so there is much more to me than I ever knew.”
Of course, it was Freud who paved the way for the exploration of the unconscious and the patterns it contains. You might say Freud was caught in one archetypal pattern that much informed his theoretical frame, the pattern of Oedipus. Remember, according to the Greek myth, Oedipus unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. [And, of course, Jung added later the parallel figure of Electra who competes with the mother for the father’s affections.] The Oedipus and Electra dramas depict one archetypal pattern, that of conflict between child and parent, but consider two others—those of Odysseus and Demeter.
. . . “Odysseus had been warned by an oracle: ‘If you go to Troy, you will not return until the twentieth year, and then alone and destitute.’ He, therefore feigned madness, and Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Palamedes found him wearing a peasant’s felt cap shaped like a half-egg, and plowing with an ass and an ox yoked together, and flinging salt over his shoulder as he went. When he pretended not to recognize his distinguished guests Palamedes snatched the infant Telemachus from Penelope’s arms and set him on the ground before the advancing team. Odysseus hastily reigned them in to avoid killing his only son and his sanity having thus been established, was obliged to join the expedition.”An early attempt at draft dodging.
Not even threat of a 20 year servitude in war could sever the love between this parent and child. Many, if not most parents do go into long servitude to raise a beloved child to adulthood. They put their personal wishes and ambitions aside to assure the welfare of their children.
And remember when Persephone is swept into the underworld, Demeter, her mother, is inconsolable. All four of these ancient tales speak of patterns of relationship between parent and child, archetypal patterns that get replayed endlessly in actual relationships, mostly unconsciously. These patterns and many others are encoded in story, mythology, scripture, and fairy tales. Often an individual will remember a favorite fairy tale from childhood that expresses his/her fundamental pattern. Television shows and movies can also serve to mirror and echo one’s personal story, and they serve to expand one’s possibilities for story.
These stories and many like them are our stories. They can help us understand and explain our behaviors, our relationships, and our ways of being in the world. Dreams are always working to reunite us with the deeper stories that are ours and that shape our psychic structures. Presumably, understanding the psychic patterns in play within us empowers us to affect them consciously rather than to be only affected by them.
No one knows quite how or why it happens, but the individual who connects with the archetypal dimensions that undergird his/her personal consciousness experiences healing and a renewed sense of life and value. There is a reconciliation with an unfathomable “other,” which traditionally has been expressed in religious terms. Jung defined this other as the Self which is the organizing principle within the psyche, the archetype that organizes archetypes.
Of course, we do not know what or who this other is, only that there is something like ancient wisdom gathered in the collective unconscious that has fashioned and preserved life-giving elements and patterns of existence, a sort of museum of natural history. Darwin explained the evolution of species. Jung explains the evolution of consciousness in a parallel way. Keys and doors to this museum appear all the time in dreams, in everyday experiences, in relationships, in startling thoughts, in the imagination. Art, painting, and literature hold keys to this domain. Mostly we moderns are far too busy and involved in our 24/7 lives to care about visiting this inner museum, but the reality of sleep forces us into it daily. Sometimes we emerge with a lasting dream that tells us something about that underlying reality and our place and role in it.
My guess is that everyone here has recall of a dream from long ago that lingers in the memory. It is as if the dream clings to us, stays alive in us through no intentionality of our own. Those are important dreams.
We all make assumptions about dreams. They were caused by the snack I had at midnight. They are frivolous and lack meaning. They may mean something, but who knows what?
I want to offer a few hypotheses for understanding the dream and its function.
*There is something like an “eye” of a camera or a “watcher” that captures the dream and presents it as a memory to waking consciousness.These are the assumptions, the working hypotheses that I’ve settled on over decades of working with dreams, my own and those of many others.
*Every dream is an attempt to help us heal and move us toward wholeness.
*Every dream is a comment on our life situation.
*Threads from any dream can and do lead into many, many areas of our lives.
*Through patient attention to our dreams, we can make contact with and enter into a meaningful dialogue with the unconscious. [By unconscious, I simply mean the source of those factors that influence and impact our lives in unknown ways.]
*The unconscious turns to us the face we turn to it. We ignore it; it ignores us.
*Every dream is given to us for the purpose of healing past hurts, enlarging our perspective, and/or integrating portions of our personality.
*The dream brings new information to compensate or complement our waking attitudes.
*Our life energy, or libido, is personified in dreams, as if the psyche or the unconscious wants to draw us into a living relationship.
*Relationships with inner figures can be as important, enriching, and rewarding as relationships with people in our outer lives. [SLIDE 9]
*Our inner and outer lives are in some way mirrors of each other. Dream work can provide for a more harmonious balance between the two.
*The psyche has a teleological aspect, i.e., it is working towards a goal or purpose. Further, it seeks our participation and cooperation.
*The unconscious both conceals and reveals itself. It both yearns to be seen, yet is reluctant.
*In analysis, a secured-symbolizing field is certainly necessary for the individual. Such a field is also necessary for the unconscious. [Therapeutic containers are the “safe and secured spheres or circles in which ‘heavy’ things can safely happen.” This is the sense in which I use the phrase, “secured-symbolizing field.”] The element of trust is of utmost importance in any depth work with another person. In Jungian circles the expression “sacred temenos” is often used to describe the field that needs to be established for analysis.
*The dream can speak with more authority than any human voice.
I am fond of this quote from Jung: “If you pay attention to your dreams long enough, you will develop an opinion about the unconscious. More importantly, the unconscious will develop an opinion about you.”
Another way of saying much the same thing is that over time you will understand the nature of the relationship that your conscious self has with its unconscious backdrop. Dreams will inform you about that relationship.
Is something (the Self, the “Other”) in the unconscious critical of me, pleased with me, helping me, wanting something from me, giving me a warning? The dream storyline and characters present a drama in which the dream ego usually plays a role. (The dream ego is the part of the dreamer’s personality depicted in the dream.) Is the role cooperative, adversarial, passive, etc? Does the dream depict me as a responsible, worthy adult or as a petulant child, angry, obdurate, difficult? The dream seems to hold an opinion about our ego, and will tell us that opinion in no uncertain terms. That is precisely the reason so many people ignore and/or dismiss their dreams. Who likes criticism?
If you pay attention to your dreams, jot down notes and reflections about them, you will, over time see that the dreams begin to respond to your attention. That is when it gets really interesting.
There is solid empirical evidence for all this, so don’t take it as an article of faith but as a possible working hypothesis for personality development. I do assume you are here because of an interest in dreams and their function.
That is a lot about dreams and assumptions about dreams, what about specific guides for approaching the dream? The best approach is a simple one that Jung himself describes in MDR:
“After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me. … I felt it necessary to develop a new attitude toward my patients. I resolved for the present not to bring any theoretical premises to bear upon them, but to wait and see what they would tell of their own accord. My aim became to leave things to chance. The result was that the patients would spontaneously report their dreams and fantasies to me, and I would merely ask, ‘What occurs to you in connection with that?’ or, ‘How do you mean that, where does that come from, what do you think about it?’ The interpretations seemed to follow of their own accord from the patients’ replies and associations. I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream-images by themselves, without application of rules and theories. Soon I realized that it was right to take the dreams in this way as the basis of interpretation, for that is how dreams are intended. They are the facts from which we must proceed.” [Pp. 170-71]Let’s move on now to discuss some specific dreams, dreams that proved helpful to the individual. After all, what good is any understanding if it doesn’t in some way enhance our day-to-day living? What I most like about Jungian Psychology is that it has practical and helpful application, nowhere more than in its use of dream interpretation
The very first dream an individual brings into analysis is often extremely important and sets the trajectory for the entire work. This was such a presenting dream:
I was running along a ridge, following behind a group of runners. We came to a deep chasm, and they all just leapt across. I stopped, knowing there was no way I could jump across. It was too wide. Then, a man and woman appeared on my side of the chasm and went up to a switch that turned off the current of the electric fence at the bottom. They then walked arm and arm down the hill and up the other side. I realized that I could just keep practicing jumping and maybe eventually be able to jump over.The dreamer’s (I will call her Marion) answers to the questions about her associations all centered about a personal dilemma she was feeling very strongly. Revisiting the dream a few years later, she wrote the following:
“I had been deeply upset, saddened and depressed over (a personal matter). It was a death of sorts, and I couldn’t get over it. The chasm certainly symbolized that to me. The couple knew how to “disconnect” the current to get across. After much discussion, I realized that I needed to disconnect from feelings that were holding me back. Often, it seemed disloyal or unfeeling to move on, but the dream showed me how to disconnect from feelings that kept me blocked from going where I wanted to go.”There is a lot packed into this first dream, symbols of the chasm, a strong current that stops the dreamer; another connection of a man and a woman, a coupling, who represent helpful elements in the unconscious; and the hope and promise of change. Figures in the dream show Marion the way through her dilemma. The dream had a profound and lasting effect. And, of course, the “watcher” provided the dreamer a broader perspective on her situation.
This dream illustrates something more about the way dreams work. Dreams seem not to operate under the rules of our three-dimensional world, rules about time, cause and effect, spacial relationships. Rather than cause and effect, the dream uses more of a “when-then” logic. In this dream, when the coupling happens, i.e., the joining of some masculine and some feminine energies, then something else can be disconnected, that is, the restricting current, which Marion believed was her strong feelings about certain troubling situations. There are hints in this dream about restructuring of defense systems when they no longer serve.
This one dream had far-reaching consequences for Marion in how she lived, and it immediately convinced her of the value of working with her dreams. Her conscious view of her situation was limited. The dream greatly expanded that view.
Now I want to share a sequence of dreams where the personal and the archetypal are so intertwined that no interpretation on my part was necessary.
Sara was a woman in her mid-30’s who had gone through a painful divorce, and after several years alone, had remarried. She was eager to have a child as she felt her biological clock might run out on her. She had this dream:
I discovered that my mother and her two sisters had been secretly keeping my grandmother (their mother) alive for years. However, when I was face to face with my grandmother, I saw that her eyes were brown instead of the vivid blue they were when was alive. I said, “No, this is not Grandma. Her eyes were blue.” At that moment I touched her arm. Her eyes turned blue, and I knew it was she.Shortly after this dream, Sara discovered she was pregnant. The night before the child was born, she dreamed that her grandmother came through the front door of her house. Later she told me that when she awoke she knew the dream was announcing the birth. Sure enough, on that day she went into labor.
Some four months went by, and Sara brought a new and puzzling dream:
My grandmother comes to my house. She tells me she is bored and needs a new craft.I asked her what she made of this Grand Mother dream. She looked very startled. Later she told me that on the way home she bought a pregnancy test. She discovered, much to her surprise, that she was again pregnant.
On the day Sara’s second child was born, her sister called to tell her that she had had a dream about their grandmother in which the grandmother had assured her that Sara and her little family would be just fine. As Sara told me later, she (Sara) immediately wondered if the sister were herself pregnant. The sister was but didn’t yet know it. By this time, as you can guess, the whole family is on the alert for appearances of this grandmother. Some years go by. Sara brings this dream, which she had the night before she was to have a hysterectomy:
My grandmother comes to tell me her work is done. The scene shifts. There is to be an elaborate funeral for her in a huge theater. All my grandmother’s progeny are ushered into the place. The funeral service is more beautiful and moving than I can possibly describe. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.These dreams were all deeply moving and held great meaning for Sara. She felt very much supported and loved by this grandmother who, when she was a young child, had been so loving and gracious to her. The dreams helped her realize that this loving and supportive Great Mother continued her presence in Sara’s life. No earthly person could have reassured and supported Sara in the ways these dreams did.
Here is a dream of someone (I’ll call her Joanne) who has done her life’s homework. She is a woman in her 70’s, is married, has raised a family, is a talented artist, and has enjoyed a successful career. She still works part time. The dream:
President Obama is on the deck behind our house. He is bowing reverently before my madonna statue.For Joann this was a profound, even numinous, dream. She experienced it as a gift. In her associations she talked about her admiration for the president, how she felt he had his values in the right place, and was able to press on in spite of extremely trying circumstances. A cradle Catholic, for Joann the madonna is a symbol of great import though she left the Catholic church a long time ago. Joann always made her role as mother a priority and is now playing a formative role in the lives of her grandchildren. She spoke at length about all that her maternal dedication still requires of her.
From an archetypal and symbolic perspective, this dream says a great deal. The “president” presides over the “united states.” Psychologically the united states speaks to consciousness with its amalgamation of various complexes and feeling states, integrated sufficiently that the states remain in a fixed position, no state going rogue or acting entirely independently of the others. The borders between the states are porous and make for easy access. Each has it own governing organization, yet all allow and bow to a higher authority.
The madonna, Mary, the “mother of god,” is another archetypal image. She is the goddess incarnate. Tradition has it that Mary was conceived without “sin,” i.e., she represents an uncontaminated consciousness that can bring forth something of a “saving nature” without sullying it with preconceived ideas or assumptions
I think most creative people would say their work involves, even requires, a kind of “divine spark,” as well as the willingness to persevere under extremely difficult circumstances. Another archetypal image, not imaged in this dream is that of the annunciation, the moment the angel Gabriel whispers the inspiration to Mary.
We can infer something about the state of Joann’s consciousness from these archetypal associations. I especially appreciate dreams of this sort because they give us a fine idea of the psychological relevance of scriptural stories. It is one thing to believe the stories relate to events millennia ago. It is quite another to realize the stories describe developments possible and occurring in the personality of an individual today.
I have dwelt on the Great Mother for good reason. Ultimately, she is the unconscious itself. She is the source; she gives birth to consciousness. Dreams reconnect us with her. We all come from the goddess-mother, and to her we shall return.